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Host behaviour and nest-site characteristics affect the likelihood of brood parasitism by shiny cowbirds on chalk-browed mockingbirds

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We investigated the association between brood parasitism by shiny cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis), and behaviour and nest-site characteristics of chalk-browed mockingbirds (Mimus saturninus). This host builds nests on trees, it is aggressive against intruders and it is larger than shiny cowbirds. We conducted focal observations of mockingbird nests, and registered mockingbird activity and attentiveness around the nest. To characterize nest sites, we measured nest cover, nest height, and distance from the nest to the closest perch, and included host laying date and year as additional predictor variables. We also evaluated experimentally host agonistic behaviours directed towards a female cowbird and a control model, and the association between aggressive behaviour and parasitism. Nest attentiveness, nest cover and laying date were associated with parasitism. These results contradict the host-activity hypothesis, because more attentive pairs were less parasitized, and the nest-exposure hypothesis, because more concealed nests were more parasitized. Experiments showed that unparasitized pairs were more aggressive against cowbird models than were parasitized ones. Our findings indicate that shiny cowbirds prefer to parasitize more concealed nests, where they could lay undetected by the host, and that mockingbird nest attentiveness and aggression towards cowbirds are effective first lines of defence against brood parasitism.

Affiliations: 1: Departamento de Ecología, Genética y Evolución, Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Pabellón II Ciudad Universitaria, C1428EGA, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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